Thursday, July 9, 2015

Inside Out

Riley is an eleven-year old girl who is not, in fact, the main character in Inside Out. Most of the plot focuses on her emotions: Joy, Anger, Disgust, Fear and Sadness. Up until this point, Riley has led a life largely controlled (literally) by Joy. But when her family moves to a new town, Joy suddenly has to compete with other emotions like Anger and Sadness in ways she did not have to before; in other words, her formerly quiet inside emotions are about to come out for the world to see.

Inside Out is the latest Pixar extravaganza from the director who brought us Up and Monsters Inc. Metacritic has given it a 93 out of 100; Rotten Tomatoes has a 98% critic rating (check out this link for some of the more choice reviews). Along with the well-deserved accolades from critics and audiences, parents of autistic kids are reporting that this movie is helping their kids better identify and express their emotion. The psychologist who helped develop Riley's inner life told Pacific Standard:
"I got an email from a mom who took her highly functioning autistic boy to the movie, and seeing the movie was the first time that this young guy had insight into his emotional difficulty. He said: "Mom, I know I have anger, fear, and disgust, but I really struggle with sadness and joy—I don't know where they are." And she said it was their breakthrough moment. I was blown away."
Inside Out is creative, insightful, funny, heart-wrenching and full of hope. I may or may not have teared up several times. I most certainly laughed. In the midst of my enjoyment, a few understated but important elements in the movie stood out to me.

First, it's clear that happiness is not the most important thing in life. Sadness is both good and important. Joy thought she needed to be in control all the time so Riley’s core memories would always be joyful; it turns out bittersweet memories are just as precious. Plugged In noted, “Sadness isn't the villain. She's the hero. She allows Riley to grieve over the losses she's sustained in her big move/life change and, eventually, move on and change for the better… sadness—indeed, all of those prickly emotions we see in Inside Out—can be catalysts for a much deeper joy down the line.” In the end, we see how a healthy balance of emotions is both necessary and beneficial.

Second, her parents have great influence in her life, and rightly so. They are flawed but good people. They deserve her respect and trust. Many stories today portray parents as inept and bumbling while the kids are always mature and wise. Inside Out gives a refreshingly honest look at what life looks like when parents are imperfect but worthy of respect and trust, and kids are immature and volitile while still being deserving of love, respect, and patience. (It’s also  interesting that this Disney/Pixar family is a both traditional and sociologically optimal – a  biological mom and a dad in a stable, low conflict relationship.)*

Third, there is a refreshing innocence to Riley. Boys are present, but not at all intrusive. There are sparks but no fire. When she meets a boy who is clearly attracted to her, the emotions inside his head just scream ”Girl!” and she walks on to her hockey game. It was a minor point in the movie, but an important one. According to U.S. News and World Report, approx. 20% of middle schoolers in Los Angeles (mean age of 12) “sext” each other, and 11% of those sexting are having sex. SIECUS, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, reported that in 2009 up to 20% of sixth graders, up to 33% of seventh graders, and up to 42% of eighth graders have engaged in sexual intercourse, depending on location. It’s nice to have a movie that lets middle school kids be kids.

Fourth, there is some great fodder for worldview discussion. Riley starts out a blank slate, slowing growing in complexity as she grows older. In the nature vs. nurture debate, it’s all nurture. The film's creator once stated that “Riley is not our main character; she is our setting." At times she seems like the ultimate Pavlovian kid, responding to stimuli mindlessly, lacking a sense of self that would have the ability to intervene, make choices, and channel emotions a particular way. If that reflected the director's belief about the inner life of people, I would have been very disappointed. All of the emotional power of the movie would be nothing more than bell-ringing events and salivating emotions – and our responses to the movie would be the same. However, Pete Doctor, the director, made it very clear  that Riley was meant to be a character with autonomy and free will:
“If Riley is her emotions – and early on we had other emotions and we also had logic and reason… if those characters are Riley, then how can Joy love Riley? It’d be like loving your car. Part of the relationship that you have in a loving relationship is the fact that everybody has free will, so we made a conscious decision to drop logic and make Riley separate from her emotions. And again, this is truthful. You don’t choose whether you feel fearful or anger, it just kind of comes to you. What you do with that then is your choice and how you react. We realized early on that we were basically telling this movie from a parent’s point of view and so Riley needed to have her own autonomy.” 
I didn't think Riley’s autonomy was as clear in the movie as Doctor hoped it would be, but I give him props for what he was able to accomplish in the midst of tremendous complexity.

There may even be an upside to an ambiguity that allows for great conversation among those of us who appreciate dissecting the worldviews in an animated kids’ movie: Are we formed most by nature, nurture, or something more? Do our emotions control us, or can we control them? What role does free will play in our life?

And for the kids, there are simpler but equally valuable questions: What are your core memories? Are they joyful or sad? Are they good even if they are sad? Sometimes it feels like our emotions control us – how do you control your emotions?

It's not often a movie resonates so thoroughly with such a wide demographic. It's a testament to how well Inside Out taps into the human experience. Go. Take your family and friends. It's one way to show the entertainment industry what kind of story we would like to see again.

*Kids' movies are an interesting lense through which to view cultural trends. Entertainment companies are, in the end, businesses. They need to offer bread and circuses. Even while a lot of family norms are changing throughout culture, Disney/Pixar clearly believes those changes have not yet transferred to kids.


  1. Well I already really wanted to see this movie. Now, I think I'm going to actively see if we can get someone to stay with our son while he's sleeping so my wife and I can go see it. Thanks for the great overview and commentary on the movie. I've been hearing only good things and I've got to see it!

  2. It is well worth your time and money, J.W. I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

  3. While the film's visual jokes are as funny as they are imaginative, the humor and inventiveness are yoked to an unusually poignant narrative.

    Top rated Lake LBJ Real Estate